Visiting the church of scientology
Far from the Rue de la Loi in Brussels Scientology also has a church which, according to the website has a visitor centre that is open to the public. For reasons I still don’t quite understand myself I decided that, in writing this series, I was obliged to go there and take a look around. Perhaps I had come to recognise that between the online testimony, websites, books and the video’s it was conceivable that the real world could harbour a markedly different layer. After all, what has a church in an insignificant corner of a small capital of a small country in an even more insignificant corner of the world to do with the grand all-consuming organisation I had been writing about?
While I expected it to be a different, more provincial, more relaxed version of the mammoth I had found online I was still acutely aware that in doing this I was taking the exact same first step that any Sea Org member someday had taken. While I was still privately convinced that I could stop with Scientology any time I wanted, I also remembered I had entertained the exact same notion about smoking once upon a time. Many of those that went before me had shared these assumptions with me. I was never entirely free from the notion that some of them would still be alive today if it hadn’t been for this very step I was about to take now.
Still it was some kind of a test, a test I owed to Scientology, to see if the online-version of Scientology that was based in a large part on the past also persevered on the local level into the present. I could not devise a representative test that would somehow support all the aspects we had come to talk about. For that I would have to go in too deep to stand a chance of ever resurfacing. Without explicitly formulating it as such, I was going to dangle myself in front of them, as bait, to see how hungry they were. After all, I had been in Mosques, Temples and Cathedrals and gotten away from these experiences without the slightest sense of being lured in. If the church of Scientology was just like any other church I expected to find some people there, minding their own business; I expected a slight sense of community, people talking outside, a mix of people that came in together with those that came in alone, announcements of activities not only testifying to top-down but also of bottom-up involvement. A Church after all, was a family, right?
It was hardly Scientology’s fault that at the day in question I had almost walked by the church entirely. Catholic churches in Europe occupy landmark positions at intersections of large roads. Churches are so systemically a part of the centre of towns that ‘near the church’ is the very definition of ‘city-centre’. So much even that if we were to abolish religion one would seriously have to consider keeping the churches for their orientation function alone. Scientology, in marked contrast, has to make due with whatever is available.
Startled by the unexpected ‘arriving at’ I first focussed on the information displayed outside, gathering my nerves. Two stands with leaflets partially blocked the way in. Unsure if I was going to proceed I browsed through them. They were all in French and I wondered if that meant anything significant given that our country is officially tri-lingual and bi-lingual in practice. I took a leaflet promoting the dianetics book of Hubbard, showing off the terrifying volcano, a version of the ‘The Way To Happiness’ booklet and a promotional leaflet advertising the free personal-efficiency course.
Rather disappointed with my catch, but too afraid to go in I read and re-read the announcements of past and coming pastoral activities. Suddenly someone left the door to the church. As she walked past me she said hello in French and I replied. She rather looked like life had steamrolled all over her, skinny, tired and somewhat flustered. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. Still she had been friendly and surprisingly real and human. I thought to myself that ‘perhaps these Scientologists would be not entirely unpleasant after all’. I decided I had not come all this way not to learn anything, I mounted the steps, pulled..-cursed-.. then pushed the door marked ‘reception’ and went in.
The man behind the desk was sitting down again from the position of crouching over, I guessed to see better who was in the doorway. I realised my presence had been noticed before I had even decided to come it! He seemed happy to see me. I said hello in French then Dutch and he did the same. I could tell from his accent he was from the Netherlands, the country to the North of us. He inquired if I was Dutch-speaking, he clearly had picked up my accent as well. I confirmed.
I told him I had seen on the website about the ‘visitor centre’ that was open to the public and asked if it was okay for me to look around. He nodded but didn’t give me any pointers to indicate if I could proceed and if so, whereto. I pointed to the open-space next to his desk and asked if that was it (not intending to sound disappointed but actually being a bit). He confirmed, perhaps a tad defensively. In reality the space was just the very beginning and I saw shortly after that indeed there was a door leading to a much bigger ‘Exhibition’. Because that was what it was: a museum exhibition. It was nothing like the thing I had imagine, a bright room with some leaflet stands. Instead big images accompanied with big letter boards -interchanged with smaller written prose-, were strewn across the walls.
He said I could go in and look around. As I turned to proceed I heard him say ‘just a little question’, my heart skipped a beat and I realised I was still nervous. The man inquired if I also spoke French. Obviously I had already said hello in French so back-tracking would have been suspicious, I also didn’t see the point in lying on that particular point. He said I could proceed but that someone would be in shortly ‘to answer any questions I had’. While I had offered myself up as bait I hadn’t thought they would bite quite as quickly as that. A large part of me had hoped to find a semi busy hall where I could blend in and would be able to leave having been left alone to browse whatever was publicly available. Instead, I wasn’t even a minute inside the Church of Scientology and already I was to meet a Scientology official!
The fundamental mission of Scientology is to bring freedom and wisdom to humanity.
This made me very nervous and I knew it wouldn’t take an e-meter to pick up on that. As I thought it over I had no good reason to be so nervous really. If Scientology was what it pretended to be, a religion that was on the level and open about everything, an atheist poking his nose in their public visitor centre shouldn’t bother them at all. So I kept quiet and proceeded to the ‘exhibition’. It started with the biography of L. Ron Hubbard, which is really boring and contains hyperbole such as telling of ‘how LRH corrected oceanic charts’. I had problems focusing on it because of the stress I felt and I assumed most of this information would not surpass what was available online in accuracy.
An actual wall separated the LRH room from the rest of the Exhibition. As I went through the door (as if going deeper into the dragon’s den) a frightening realisation hit me:
The second room, the non-LRH room, was roughly 50 meters by 9 and was divided by panels that formed semi cubicles. It contained the remainder of the exhibition. What struck me almost immediately was how it resembled the Scientology website down to the form-factor and style. The pictures were the same. I even recognised some of the texts on the panels. The cubicles divided it into the same topics the website had done: Human Rights Advocacy, Anti-Drugs awareness, Dianetics and ‘The Way To Happiness’.
Panels in French and Dutch surrounded a LCD television in every cubicle. This had some sort of custom input-console in front of it. The televisions were off, reinforcing the feeling that no-one had preceded me and that no-one had been expected; to the point that it just seemed wasteful to leave the televisions on. As far as I could tell, and was shown later, the televisions featured the same promo-video’s as were available through the website. The voice-over was available in most international languages, including Dutch and even a version of Flemish, which is a Dutch dialect. Any hope that this ‘outback’ scientology-church would have its own parochial culture distinct from that of
Mordor the large Sea Org was beaten down by the surprising lengths they had gone through to imitate the website in this 3D version.
As I worked hard on concentrating on some panels of the ‘Human Rights’-section I heard the ominous clickety-clackety of high-heels echoing through the deserted rooms behind me. A little old lady, attractive, trying to look 50 but probably more than a decade older, with short white hair and discrete amounts of make-up on, approached me. She smiled warmly and appeared friendly enough yet also seemed, as she approached and retreated several times, very concerned to keep her distance without seeming distant. She said hello and inquired about my knowledge of French, even though I knew the guy at the front desk had informed her. I reconfirmed that I was Dutch speaking but mastered French well enough, to which she said she unfortunately, being Parisian, couldn’t address me in Dutch. Between us three; the man at the front-desk, myself and her I was the only Belgian in the church and I wondered again what, if anything, I should conclude from it. I said dismissively that we’d manage rather well in French. To which she counter-proposed that we could also speak in English. To me this felt strange. In Brussels people do occasionally speak English to tourists and at work, especially in IT contexts. However it was not something that was done on the streets and in the shops once the mutual ability to speak French was established. To me it kind of highlighted her unfamiliarity with the culture in Brussels.
For my part I didn’t feel like giving away my abilities in English just yet. Although they by far exceed my command of French the idea of speaking English inside a church whose native tongue was English made me uneasy. Given that so far only -the language being spoken- had differentiated this place from a big U.S. based Sea Org organisation I craved that small difference for reassurance. I made some lame excuse about most things at work being in French and that I didn’t want to mix two languages.
She switched on the television we were at. She proposed that I’d take a look around at my leisure and that whatever I found interesting I could then ask her later. She inquired how much time I had (suggesting 10 minutes), I made it 15, but then made them hard by inventing a coming meeting. I saw she didn’t believe me but she accepted my deadline gracefully. Still, the agreement had something menacing about it. It felt like I was now beholden to something; No longer free to leave when I wanted, even though I hadn’t accepted anything from them that they hadn’t offered to the public. I voiced interest in a brochure regarding the Disaster Relief Aid of Scientology at a stand behind her. She said she would see ‘what she could do about that afterwards’. She put up a video dealing with the ‘Human Rights’ awareness part of Scientology and left. I watched part of the video but got bored and walked away to continue the rest of the ‘Exhibition’.
She then inquired, ‘If you don’t mind me asking’ what my professional role in life was. Though I didn’t really mind, the few short sentences we had exchanged certainly didn’t entitle her to that information even if we were prepared to stretch the unwritten rules of social conduct a bit. Through the clumsiness of this question I got the distinct impression she was trying to cram a formal checklist of things she needed to do, say or ask, into a very short time. I answered rather truthfully about what my job was in life, knowing full well that it considerably enhanced my attractiveness as ‘bait’. I was careful not to disclose my actual employer. I made a big point about being in IT and having access to lots of data, half of which I actually didn’t entirely understand, in an attempt to sound open and forthcoming and to prevent her from asking things that could identify me later. She seemed even more pleased and asked if I had any interest to learn anything more about Dianetics or Scientology as a religion. I said, rather truthfully that I did want to know about the scientific underpinnings of Dianetics but that I wasn’t intend on ‘becoming part of Scientology just yet’. She swallowed that suggestion raw, assuring me, for the first time and rather unjustly defensive that she was ‘only giving information’. For a ‘Clear’ I sensed that she had definitely still some ‘Engrams’ about ‘Scientology-recruiting’ she would need to clear off if she ever wanted to proceed further ‘up the bridge’. As with all religions it was best not to insist on too much consistency so I didn’t point this out to her.
She continued the previous line of thought with a remark about ‘the school visits’. ‘School visits!?’ I asked. Yes, teachers come here with their students, ‘we also give them information’. Actually the visits were picking up again from before, she said. As she continued to talk I sensed she was fishing to know how much I would confirm knowing. Some years ago, she said, there had been some ‘weird stories’ about Scientology in the press, but now that all of it had all been cleared the groups were coming back. ‘Jesus!’ I thought by myself, betraying more my cultural heritage than my religious inclinations.
Since I guess that Catholic schools (for whom it would be ‘kind of legal’) wouldn’t even drive by the Church of Scientology if they could avoid it, I strongly suspected these ‘school-visits’ were organised by public-school-teachers, attracted by the anti-drug or human-rights pitches Scientology threw at them. However well-intentioned on their parts, I couldn’t help but lament to myself how this inevitable lowered the bar for those children, as they grew up, to come in again for any other ‘services’ Scientology might have to offer. Back in the day when I was still a little atheist-catholic-boy we were dragged around to all sorts of churches and mosques. I didn’t regret this nor do I denounce it now. It is not so much that I fundamentally mind children encountering a number of religions and their invariably nutty beliefs. But I do mind it very much when the ‘nuttiness’ is concealed and replaced with a position of authority on topics like ‘anti-drugs’ and ‘human rights’. While a visit to a church needn’t imply any support of that church’ tenets, a collaboration between a school and Scientology on widely supported topics comes with an implicit endorsement from that school for the religious organisation. It is, for example, not because Christianity has a commandment against ‘killing’ that it is permissible for schools to collaborate with them on ‘anti-capital-punishment’ topics.
My ‘new-found Scientologist friend’ led me to the video display on Dianetics. ‘The other two televisions had overheated’, she lied. I’m quite sure she lied because LED’s don’t produce heat and even direct sunlight isn’t hot enough to do any damage to an EC-approved electronic circuit. Any other hypothetical malfunction wouldn’t likely have happened simultaneously to both. The truth, I suspected, was that neither the ‘War-on-drugs-video’ nor the ‘Way To Happiness-video’ would convince me to come back. ‘My name is Elisabeth’ she said out of the blue. (I changed her name for ethical reasons) ‘Hi my name is Thomas’, I lied. She was good, the way she sprung that on me! If I hadn’t prepared for it, it would have totally thrown me off guard. She sat me down to watch the video. ‘I am only giving you information’, she repeated. She then went back into the LRH room.
The video talked about the way we absorb all the little experiences and place them on our ‘time-line’ and how these go into the ‘previously unknown’ part of our brain, ‘The Reactive Mind’. It was a basic introduction to ‘Engrams’ and Scientology’s ‘Time-track’. It thus went on to talk about “PTSD”, without calling it that, “grief”, without calling it that and other psychological “trauma”, without calling them as such either. It gave the example of how a food poisoning trauma can be recalled by the mere sent of the same food-stuff, including with it the feeling of nausea.
No wonder, I thought, that Scientology has a thing against psychiatry and neurology. Its theory on the fundamental workings of our consciousness and our brain are neither original nor still able to compete on an explanatory level, with current scientific understandings of the mechanics of neuro-biology. The ability of smell to recall memory is well documented and sufficiently explained by the proximity in the brain and large interconnectedness between the centres of memory and smell. The latter also has a clear evolutionary pathway since most of our ancestors were more sensitive on the nostrils and less sensitive on the eyes than we have become.
There really is no need for dianetics to explain things like PTSD and lesser trauma. There is functionally no difference, for much of the brain, between going through an experience and recalling it. This cleverly evolved mechanics re-uses most of the hardware for different functions. This is a school-example of evolution-economics. Sounds, smells, sights and memory become chemically stronger linked to very emotional content and repeating signals on those inputs will send signals down the same pathways through which those memories were stored. Scientology tries to overlay this with an immaterialist ‘thetans’-sauce but is less able to explain what is going on through it. A theory that allows for any prediction really predicts nothing!
After the video had completed I decided my ‘meeting’ was coming up and as I stood up I saw Elisabeth pacing in circles, waiting for me in the LRH room. Again this felt strange bordering on awkward, as it highlighted the amount of effort and attention that was being invested into me personally, while I hadn’t asked for any at all. She saw me and asked ‘if I had found it interesting’. ‘Very interesting’ I replied, while I had an nervous internal pleasure at the thought that she would be positively shocked to find out what exactly I had found so interesting about it. She didn’t ask anything else as I looked at my cell-phone with feigned stress.
Elisabeth had gathered the Dutch versions of the leaflets I had already collected and the brochure about the Volunteer Ministry I had requested. L. Ron Hubbard dictated that the only possible failing of Scientology came when ‘someone went past a word they didn’t understand’. As a result Scientologists insist one having official translations of everything so you don’t have to read anything in a language you master only ‘pretty well’. Elisabeth had everything inside a nice, largely white little plastic Scientology bag. This again had the horrible dianetics-volcano on it. She didn’t offer an explanation for why the volcano was there. Scientologists are apparently so used to it they don’t see how, to the outside world, this image doesn’t rime with the rest of their official presentation. I (partially) pretended to be very “happy” with it. She also just happened to have a business card in her otherwise very empty pocket. ‘Just in case I decided to contact her with questions in six months’. On the card I saw she was the President of the Information Centre for Dianetics and Scientology. We parted very amicably, she said ‘see you later Thomas’ on a tone which would have suited a mother very nicely, I waved goodbye and repeated it once more for the receptionist.
As I was hurriedly making my get-away I felt a great sense of relieve. I was kind of surprised that no-one there had asked why I had decided to visit the Scientology Church. Not having prepared a ‘hard-to-maintain’ story I probably would have divulged my atheist-curiosity. In hind-sight I was rather relieved they hadn’t asked me that. They had assumed I was ‘raw meat’ and had treated me with kid-gloves although not without also some slight duress. Although they hadn’t pushed the personality test nor the e-meter demonstration on me, this was likely only due to time constraints. On all other accounts they had disappointingly failed my ‘test’. I had not found a parochial church community far removed from its mother-ship. Instead I found an utterly deserted chapter of a tightly and uniformly lead organisation.
Instead of being allowed to look around their public space as an outsider, I had been ‘invited’ to share positive thoughts about it. Sure, I could ask questions, but the slightest hint of anything sceptical was answered with stern body-language. I had not desired watching videos, which I could easily have watched on the Scientology website, and yet I ended up watching two. They had inquired about my job and who I was, in the same time-frame other strangers normally barely start a conversation about the weather. The 10 minutes-visit they proposed, the 15 minute-visit I agreed to, quickly turned into a 25 minutes one which I had to cut short on my initiative.
Nothing about this visit felt genuine as it actually felt more like a checklist was being worked down. At no point did I lose the impression that the ‘information given’ served a clear (pun intended) purpose; And this formed a marked distinction with any other religious building or organisation I had visited thus far. All in all it reminded me more of Jehova Witnesses’ ‘info-stands’.
Several underground passages, small streets, a busy park and a subway corridor later I was convinced nobody was following me. This probably was overkill but still, no ‘suppressive person’ ever benefited from underestimating Scientology. ‘Shaking a tail’ was not something I had planned in advance. I was an idea that resulted from the emptiness of the Church and the fact that I had been much less conspicuous than I had hoped. If they had ‘read’ me better than I thought I could face some serious consequences from writing this series if they succeed in following me.
I latter wondered if it was subconscious arrogance that made me pick ‘Thomas’ as an alias. Thomas, the most sceptic of all apostles. Damn you, my arrogant reactive mind!